Sometimes, in your gaming life, you just want to sit back in your chair and explore. You don’t need to gun down five thousand aliens, or conquer modern day Europe with the medieval technologies of the Byzantines, you could just do with a few hours of pure, unadulterated nothing. Right before you’re blown into a thousand smithereens by a space laser. For that niche market there is Elite: Dangerous, a game about spaceships. In fact, it’s the fourth generation of games about spaceships by the hardy Frontier Developments.
Elite Dangerous is the ultimate do-it-yourself game. You are given the space equivalent of a ’99 Vauxhall Corsa and thrown out in to the galaxy, with not even all your controller buttons mapped correctly. After 45 minutes assigning as many functions to your chosen controller as you can, spiralling ever closer to an absolutely stunning red dwarf, your career as a pilot can truly begin. Stick on the Lord of the Rings Extended Cut Edition boxset and aim for the closest station, Commander.
It is a beautiful game. Everywhere you go is quiet and peaceful, with only your ship computer for company (unless you have a friend on voice chat), as you blast through solar systems on a haphazard path to a new space station. As you stick your ship into supercruise for the straight run to your destination, the quiet will be broken by an otherworldly soundtrack just audible over the groan of your ship. The detail in the game is amazing, you can really engross yourself in the skies – it goes so far as the voice chat has even been developed to sound like it’s coming through a space comms unit.
Above all, it’s up to you what you do with your time. The galaxy is your oyster; full of suns, planets, space stations, pilots, criminals and everything else. The whole thing is a 1:1 scale, open world environment based on the Milky Way. Just open up your Galaxy Map and start scrolling down to realise you’re a virtual grain of sand in this cosmic MMO.
You can spend your time trading, hauling tonnes of sugar from station to station, or fuelling the black market by ferrying stolen artwork instead – just be careful of security, you’ll be scanned on entrance to a space station. If being a space Eddie Stobart doesn’t interest you, why not become the Christopher Columbus of the stars, venturing to new systems to catalogue the planets you find. Still no? Well, fine, why not just go out and shoot some stuff up with your giant death laser.
Ultimately, you’ll begin to realise where you actually belong in the Star Wars universe; space delivery boy.
In between your repeated trips back and forth between systems, you can earn some favour with the in-game factions to earn special rewards: bigger and better ships, system permits, special weapons or utilities. Each system you venture in to has their own party that you can earn reputation with, sort of like the guilds of other MMO’s. The only downside is that I once had a bounty of 5,000 credits for “The Blue Netcomms Group” for accidentally ricocheting on the walls of the entrance to a station and couldn’t, for the life of me, work out where to pay it off.
Even with the spread of people across the galaxy, there are community events organised that everyone can chip into for a good sum in return; bring some metal to a remote star and help construct a new station for some credits, or help fight a war in another system to liberate it for a faction. It may be impressive to see the sights of space as a solo explorer, but to see a hundred ships collectively dropping off supplies together is a feat to behold.
Just be wary, because there will always be space bullies ready to blockade the way and pull you out of supercruise for a chance to nick your cargo.
Recently, Frontier released their first (and, admittedly, only) expansion for Elite. Horizons expands the already mindbogglingly massive world by allowing players to actually land on the many planets, race around in special ground vehicles and explore bases on those planets. It’s not something I’ve had a chance to try out yet, but the gameplay footage I’ve come across is impressive. The fact that you can seamlessly transit from space to a procedurally generated planet’s surface.
Whilst the game is impressive in almost every regard, there is a barrier for entry. You will need to Google around for some controller mappings and even then you’ll need to keep a keyboard nearby because there just aren’t enough buttons on any controller in the world to accommodate everything you’ll need. Be prepared to dive deep in to the Controller Setup page hourly to rebind buttons.
There are some training zones to get the hang of flying, combat, entering and exiting a space station – which doesn’t account for the times a space articulated lorry suddenly appears in the entry and you have to swivel quickly to avoid them. You’re on your own if you want to take up mining, unless you take initiative to slap a mining laser on your back, install a refinery and then fire at an unsuspecting asteroid only to watch disappointedly as a minute slither of rock glides over your ship and into the abyss.
Which, I suppose, is just a given issue with such a massive and intricate game as Elite. There is always something to pick up and learn, always something to find and explore, but there is always someone out there who’s done it and written a brilliant guide so you can blunder through it as well.